It’s a beloved Missoula tradition — one of the most anticipated weeks of summer by the kids’ set. It’s also in deep trouble.
Front gate admissions at the Western Montana Fair were down about $16,000 from last year. Fair manager Scot Meader blamed bad weather — including rain and cold — during several days of the event.
“Thursday, Friday and Saturday were really slow,” said Meader. “Kids’ Day [Thursday] really hurt us this year with the rain.”
But there are deeper problems than mere weather overshadowing the fair.
The dilapidated buildings that house the event have reached the end of their useful life. If the 48-acre facility doesn’t get a substantial upgrade in the near future — something far more drastic than another coat of white paint — it will soon be an unsuitable (as well as unsafe) site for the fair, officials say.
Over the years, several attempts have been made to renovate the fairgrounds, according to Dale Bickell, chief administrative officer for Missoula County. About 20 years ago, for instance, a bond measure that would have generated funds for an upgrade failed to pass. The facility has been hobbling along ever since, and officials say the day of reckoning has arrived. But the public hasn’t stepped up to approve any proposals to fix the troubles.
In 2007, several proposed plans failed to acquire public support and received criticism for being too expensive.
In the latest attempt to address the problem, the county is reviewing several plans proposed by urban design firm Crandall Arambula, which they hired last summer.
According to Bickell, the current proposals have several advantages over previous plans. Among other things, they would be phased in over a longer period, thus eliminating a huge bill up front, and they would preserve some of the historic character of the site.
The first phase of the new planning process, said Bickell, was to identify ways the fair might work in its current location. The possibilities include three redesigns of the fairgrounds site, only one of which eliminates the historic racetrack.
Phase two involves a consideration of alternative sites.
“The majority feeling [among residents] is that the fair should stay,” said Bickell. “But we need to look at the feasibility of other sites.”
These three possible sites have been proposed: south of Buckhouse Bridge on Hwy 93, adjacent to the Missoula airport, and in the Fort Missoula Regional Park.
If the fair is relocated, however, the county would have to decide what to do with the current grounds. Bickell said some options are to sell the land to the highest bidder at public auction or turn it into a county park.
Whether or not the fair moves, horse racing is unlikely to come back. Meader and Bickell said the horse racing industry is in trouble — the number of operating tracks in Montana has gone from 28 in the 1980s to three today, with only two of those at fairs — and the county, for legal reasons, can’t spend tax dollars to repair the dilapidated track, since it’s a gambling facility.
But Meader said the absence of horse racing hasn’t hurt the fair too badly and that other fairs have generally recovered their attendance levels within 3-to-5 years after cancelling the event.
The county, meanwhile, is awaiting Crandall Arambula’s report on the proposed fairgrounds site plans, which should arrive next week. Bickell said another series of public meetings will follow.
“We’re still looking for public input,” he said. “The only formal decision that the commissioners have made about this is that we are going to have a fair and it will continue to be an agricultural heritage type of fair.”
As for Meader and his crew: “Right now, we’re planning for 2010, and we’re hoping we don’t have as much rain next year.”